Moto-specific GPSs are crazy-expensive, some more than the cost of my first several motorcycles combine (Surj must be a Craigslist ninja – ed.). There are some legitimate reasons for this, like water-proofing, shock resistance, and the fact that riders love to spend on ridiculously priced farkles—but the reality is that most of us are already carrying around tiny computers capable of handling A-to-B routing chores: our phones.
Unless you’re doing very long or very complex rides, there’s a good chance a navigation app will give you all the capabilities you need. Even if you have a dedicated GPS, you may find that using your phone for day-to-day getting around is simpler than leaving your GPS on your bike all the time. I have a Garmin Zumo 660 that I use when I’m out on the road for a few days but rely on my phone for day-to-day getting around.
Phones aren’t perfect replacements for a dedicated GPS—it’s important to understand the limitations.
- Connectivity required: a lot of the cool stuff that GPS apps can do require an Internet connection—so they’re useless when you hit the hinterlands. This also means you’ll need an app with downloadable maps, otherwise you’ll lose your way as soon as you leave civilization. Phones seem to “lose the satellites” more in areas with a limited view of the sky, so spoken directions may lag or recalculate incorrectly in these environments.
- Environment: phones are generally not waterproof and the charging connectors aren’t as sturdy as the connections on a dedicated GPS—they can wear out prematurely from vibration and moisture.
- Multi-tasking: things can bog down sometimes and GPS apps—while pretty good these days—are still more susceptible to crashing than a dedicated unit.
- Planning: it’s harder to plan routes—most apps require you to create routes on your phone. This can be a pain when you’re putting together longer rides.
It’s a long list—but have no fear. These issues are not really going to be a big deal for most riders.
What do you need?
Sure, you can put your headphones inside your helmet, shove your phone in your pocket and go—but with a little work, you can put together a system that is a real GPS replacement. You’ll need a phone with a navigation app (duh), a place to mount it, a power source and a headset.
I have an iPhone 5, so that’s the hardware I’m using in this how-to. This can be done just as well on Android devices—the difference is just in the details.
If you’re just riding in the urban areas where there’s reliable cell coverage, you’ll be fine with the usual mapping apps, like Apple’s Maps app or Google Maps. The latest versions of these apps are pretty good about downloading surrounding map data, and you can actually manually cache some map data in Google Maps—zoom to the area you want to cache and type “ok maps” in the search field.
If you’re spending any time in remote areas, you’ll need an app with downloadable maps. I’m not going to do full-fledged app reviews in this article, but here are a few options.
Navigon MobileNavigator: $33 for U.S. maps—including Alaska! It has lane assistance, street-view photos of destinations, spoken speed warnings and a map manager that lets you just download the areas you need, so you can save space on your phone. This is the app I use the most.
Garmin StreetPilot:$50 for U.S. maps, or $60 for North America—you need the North America package to get Alaska. Has integrated Google Local search, lane assistance and photo-realistic junction views, plus an integrated red light and speed camera database and community-generated alerts. A lot like a Garmin GPS in your phone.
Motion-X Drive: The cheapest option, at just 99¢—but you’ll have to buy a Live Voice Guidance package after the initial thirty day trial if you want spoken directions, which ranges from $3 for 30 days to $9 a year for an auto-renewing subscription. Drive has a pretty comprehensive feature set, with visual lane assistance, live local speed limits and pre-loading of maps for offline use.
CoPilot Premium USA: A good value at $8, this app for iPhone and Android includes USA maps (with free quarterly updates, apparently forever) and it includes voice guidance and a year of traffic service free with purchase—after that it’s $10 a year.
Mounting and Protection
You don’t want your phone popping off your bike and disappearing into a canyon, right? Secure mounting is critical. The most universal solution I’ve found is RAM’s X-Grip ($52.79 with all mounting hardware or $26.78 for just the mount from Adventure Designs in Hayward, CA. It’s easy to use and surprisingly secure—I know lots of people who use these mounts and haven’t heard a single story of phones bailing out. Plus, since it’s a RAM mount, it’s very flexible—you can put your phone just about anywhere with a combination of arms and balls.
You’ll also want to keep your phone safe from flying objects (or becoming a flying object), unless it’s mounted right behind your windscreen. There are about as many phone case options as there are opinions on oil and tires, so pick one you like and go with it.
I’m currently using a Ronin G10 case from Element Case ($190). It’s constructed of machined aluminum, G10 (another name for Garolite, a tough plastic-like material that’s used for circuit boards) and carbon for a good level of protection and gearhead looks without the bulkiness that a lot of cases have.
Navigation apps use a lot of juice—if you don’t wire up a power source for your phone you’ll be back to paper maps within a couple hours of riding.
The simplest and most versatile solution is a USB port, but if you prefer a heavier-duty solution, Powerlet makes some industrial-strength connectors. I’ve used both, and prefer a USB port since it doesn’t require a specific cable—I can charge my phone, camera, or headset from the port with a basic USB cable, whereas the Powerlet ports require device-specific cables. I’m currently using a USB port made by 3BR Powersports ($45), mounted on my handlebars just to the left of the clamps—right under where my phone is mounted. It’s compact and has a weatherproof cap to keep things dry when it’s not in use.
It’s a trivial task to wire up a USB port directly to the battery on most bikes, but if you’re going to add other electronic accessories, consider using a hub of some sort. I installed a Fuzeblock FZ-1 ($84) under my seat so I can easily wire in other accessories, and I can also control which items have switched power and which are “always-on.”
Make sure you wire up your power source so the cable doesn’t interfere with anything important (like your brakes!) while riding. Even if it’s not in the way, a flapping cable can be distracting—so spend a couple minutes making this part of your installation right.
If you just want to hear the sultry electronic voice of your phone on the cheap, it’s hard to beat the Sena SMH-5 at under $100 (MSRP $129), but both companies offer several options. I’ve been beating the hell out of a Sena SMH-10 ($209) for over two years now and it’s been very reliable, even if it lacks audiophile quality sound.
Putting it all together
Once you’ve gathered up your bits and bobs, you can be ready to roll in a couple hours.
- Choose an app and download it. Figure out how to use it over your morning coffee.
- Figure out where you want your phone and mount it accordingly.
- Wire up your power source so it’s easily and safely accessible.
- Install your headset.
- Choose a destination and ride.
If you decide to ride to Alaska or do an Iron Butt, you’ll probably want to invest in a “real” GPS. But most riders will find that a smartphone running a navigation app with downloadable maps is a functional and even cool solution.
A note about safety: we motorcyclists love to bitch about “idiot texting cagers” so don’t be stupid and try to navigate while riding. It’s really dumb—you’ll crash, probably hurt yourself, and also look like a moron. So don’t use gloves that work with your touchscreen so you’ll have to stop and take off your gloves, or use an app like the CoPilot that locks the controls when it senses movement—that will remove the temptation to try to nav n’ ride.
Mounting & Protection
Look for a huge selection of electronics accessories for motorcycles in the Aerostich catalog. Ask your order-taker about Aerostich’s price-matching, too.